Less than 24 hours after Jim Leonhard turned the job down, Matt LaFleur named Joe Barry the Packers’ new defensive coordinator. The 50-year-old will replace Mike Pettine, who’s contract expired last month. Barry spent the past four seasons as assistant head coach/linebackers with the Rams and just 10 days ago agreed to join the Chargers as linebackers coach and passing game coordinator.
Barry has been a defensive coordinator twice before. LaFleur must be hoping the third time is the charm because his prior stops were unmitigated disasters. Detroit finished last in yards allowed in both of Barry’s seasons, and Washington finished 28th and 27th in his two seasons at the helm. To be fair, neither team was blessed with an abundance of talent. The best player on those Lions’ defenses was probably Cliff Avril. The talent was slightly better with The Football Team, but he still had to rely on the likes of Chris Baker, Ricky Jean Francois, Keenan Robinson, Kyshoen Jarrett, Will Compton, and Will Blackmon. Needless to say, he’ll have a lot more talent to work with in Green Bay.
Since taking over as GM in 2018, Brian Gutekunst has spent over $200 million in free agency on defensive players and three of his four first-round draft picks have been spent on that side of the ball. The Packers had two All-Pros on defense (corner Jaire Alexander and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith) this season, and nose tackle Kenny Clark played in the Pro Bowl a year ago. Add in one of the better safety tandems in the league (Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage) and an ascending pass rusher (Rashan Gary), and a lack of talent shouldn’t be an issue for Barry this time around. The real issue is simple – is he the right man for the job?
That question can’t be answered now. While it’s impossible to be excited about hiring a coordinator whose four defenses ranged from historically bad to just plain awful, it should be pointed out that Barry is held in high esteem around the league. Not only did Sean McVay hire him to be his assistant head coach, but he was the only Rams’ assistant Brandon Staley took with him to the Chargers. It says something when two of the brightest young minds in the game want you around. Then again, neither wanted him to be their defensive coordinator (hey, I tried). But seriously, working under Staley and Wade Phillips the past four seasons has to have made a positive impact on Barry. Plus, besides Leonhard, who on the long list of candidates would’ve been a clearly better choice? Ejiro Eviro, Ryan Nielsen, Chris Harris, and Chris Kiffin are unknown commodities, and would you be any more excited about fellow retreads Jerry Gray and Bob Sutton?
As for his style of play, Barry liberally mixed the 4-3 with the 3-4 in his prior two stops, but he’ll likely stick more with the 3-4 as his base defense in Green Bay. That’s what Phillips and Staley used the past four seasons in Los Angeles, and it’s the scheme the Packers employed with Pettine. That said, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gary with his hand on the ground more often. There are plenty of scouts who thought he was better suited for defensive end than outside linebacker in the NFL. Another player whose fate could be affected by this hiring is Preston Smith, who played under Barry in Washington. It’ll be very interesting to see if that makes Gutekunst more likely to restructure the veteran’s contract as opposed to releasing him.
Look, it’s hard to argue that the Packers made an upgrade by going from Pettine to Barry. The former had a much better resume when he was hired by Mike McCarthy in 2018, and despite all the criticism he took this season, his defense did finish ninth in yards allowed and 13th in points allowed. But this was never solely about getting a better coordinator. It was also about getting a better fit. LaFleur was forced to keep Pettine when he took the job 25 months ago, and the two never felt like a good match. In fact, I can’t remember a head coach of the Packers ever being so openly critical of his defensive coordinator. Simply put, this was an arranged marriage, and like most arranged marriages in pro sports, it didn’t work. Think back to when Ted Thompson was forced to keep Mike Sherman, or when Gutekunst was forced to keep McCarthy?
It’s fair to be disappointed in this hire. In fact, you’d be crazy not to be. That said, there are some things to like about Barry. He’s considered a good teacher, and he’ll bring an energy to the practice field and to the sidelines that was missing under Pettine. My guess is that the defense will do a lot more swarming and a lot less standing around next season. And while that’ll be great to see, it doesn’t mean he’ll be able to match wits with quality quarterbacks – something he better be able to do with Matthew Stafford, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, and Kyler Murray all on the schedule next season.
LaFleur just made either the smartest or the stupidest decision of his professional career. We’ll soon find out which, but for right now, you at least have to give him kudos for the size of his cojones. Of all the candidates, Barry was the one that absolutely nobody outside of the Barry household wanted him to hire. Still, there is something to be said for not making the obvious choice. In fact, legendary poet Robert Frost wrote these words over 100 years ago: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I/ I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference. Let’s hope that road doesn’t eventually lead to the unemployment line.